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Abortion clinic owner still uneasy

Jane Bovard doesn't know why she keeps all of the letters. Surrounded by a half dozen boxes overflowing with yellowed newspaper clippings, photographs and letters -- some neatly glued into dated scrapbooks -- she holds up an envelope. "I ...


Jane Bovard doesn't know why she keeps all of the letters.

Surrounded by a half dozen boxes overflowing with yellowed newspaper clippings, photographs and letters -- some neatly glued into dated scrapbooks -- she holds up an envelope.

"I didn't even open this one," she says, pointing to a Hankinson, N.D., postmark. Beneath the envelope are at least 40 more addressed to her. Inside each is a piece of paper with an identical message: "Thus saith the Lord -- Let my children go!"

In all of those boxes and in Bovard's personal history lies the story of abortion rights in North Dakota. She collects the items because somebody someday may want to tell that story.

As part owner of North Dakota's only abortion clinic, Bovard has been the voice for abortion rights and the target for anti-abortion activism in the state for more than 20 years.


She has faced protests at her work and home, lawsuits, an armed robbery and death threats. Letter writers have called her a baby killer and worse. Her clinic was firebombed. A security guard at the clinic once gave her a bullet-proof vest.

She keeps all the souvenirs from that troubled time. As a young girl, if somebody told her she couldn't do something, she proved them wrong. When she heard that girls weren't supposed to like snakes, she grabbed them. When told that girls didn't play basketball, she learned to handle the ball as well as the boys in her neighborhood.

"A lot of people wonder how she can keep her balance and cool," said Jon Lindgren, a former mayor of Fargo who was publicly in favor of abortion rights.

"She's just that kind of person. She is bound to persevere."

Bovard was three months pregnant with her fourth son when the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision of Roe v. Wade, making abortions legal in the country.

Today, she is a 59-year-old grandmother of one who sews quilts in her spare time. Her clear alto voice, punctuated with an occasional nervous giggle, invites conversation and confidants.

In August 1972, Bovard and her family moved to Fargo from Colorado. That state already had passed a law that made abortions legal if two doctors or psychologists approved of the woman's decision.

The Bovards' high school-aged baby sitter was among the young women who had an abortion.


Bovard knew the struggles that young woman had faced, so she was pleased with the federal court's decision.

In Fargo, Bovard taught childbirth classes and breast-feeding. Through her work, she determined doctors weren't giving women enough information to make good decisions about their health options.

Those issues later led her to support abortion rights.

"I realized that women needed to make choices about their own bodies, whether it was breast-feeding or becoming pregnant," she said.

Bovard became active in the Equal Rights Amendment struggle in North Dakota and helped found the first National Organization of Women chapter in the state in 1974.

She quickly moved into the abortion rights movement as state coordinator of the North Dakota chapter of the National Abortion Rights Action League in 1975. She later served on the organization's national board of directors.

While serving on that committee, she met Susan Hill, executive director of the National Women's Health Organization. The group was founded in 1976 to provide medical services to women, including access to doctors who specialized in abortions.

Bovard already had been approached by physicians in the state about opening an abortion clinic. So, in 1977 she asked Hill if she'd consider opening a clinic in Fargo.


Two years later, Hill agreed. It took another two years to make the clinic a reality. Nobody would rent to the women or work with them. Afraid it could affect their private practices, few local doctors were willing to perform the abortions at the clinic or provide follow-up care.

"Jane really took a risk," said Jane Skjei, who knew Bovard through NOW. "She promoted choice when nobody else would."

Fargo Women's Health Organization officially opened Oct. 1, 1981. Until that time, private physicians in Grand Forks and Jamestown provided abortions. But Bovard felt strongly that the patients needed education as well.

"It was important to spend time with the people and tell them about the risks -- the risks of both abortion and pregnancy," she said. Not black and white

Bovard knows the risks about both. As a senior in college, she became pregnant. She married Richard, now a retired professor who taught English at North Dakota State University, and gave birth to three more sons. But in 1974, when she was pregnant again, she decided to have an abortion at a clinic in Minneapolis.

She didn't think she could handle five small children, either emotionally or financially. As the oldest of seven children, she watched her parents' marriage dissolve after 30 years. The stress of raising a family led to that, she said.

"People make choices based on the information they have at that time," she said. "They make the choice relevant to them."

If she thinks it will be helpful, Bovard shares her story with clients. People need to know that "common, ordinary" people have abortions, she said.


Today 1,200 women a year walk through the doors of Bovard's clinic. As the managing partner of the clinic, she meets with each patient when she does an ultrasound to date the pregnancy. Her educational background is in biology and counseling, areas which have prepared her for her work.

Abortion, Bovard said, is not a black-and-white issue.

"The issue is all different shades of gray. The best-case scenario is not to be pregnant at all. After that, you need to live with the decision you make."

She never forgets it's a difficult decision to make.

During the early 1990s, when Lambs of Christ members screamed outside the clinic, Bovard refused to let advocates for abortion rights shout competing slogans.

"She said noise would come inside the clinic,'' recalled Lynn Gifford, who was president of NARAL at the time and spent time volunteering and working for the clinic.

Bovard feared patients inside "couldn't tell the difference if people were yelling, 'It's my body and I'll do what I want to,' or 'You're killing babies,'" she said.

In the clinic, Bovard put women first. Before it became routine in other ob-gyn clinics, Bovard taped posters to the ceiling so women would have something pleasant to look at during exams.


She insisted that nurses and doctors not enter an exam room until they knocked and the woman answered she was ready.

"She never forgot the emotional stuff," Gifford said. "She knew this wasn't a decision made lightly. Every woman shed tears over it. Jane remained gentle."

Becoming personal

From the moment Bovard started advertising for a nurse to work at the Fargo Women's Health Organization in 1981, the protests began. The city commission attempted to stop the clinic from opening by rejecting its building permit. Protesters picketed in front of the clinic every day abortions were scheduled.

"You never saw her lose her cool," said Lindgren, who got to know Bovard in heated moments. He insured the clinic received a building permit. He also worked closely with her when the clinic needed security against out-of-town protesters.

"More than anything, she was a positive and uplifting person. There never was a time when she screamed, 'They're doing this or they're doing that,'" he said.

In 1984, the protests turned personal when anti-abortion activists began picketing Bovard's north Fargo home.

She sat her children down and told them they could handle the protests anyway they wanted. One son said he'd leave the house by climbing over the back fence. Her youngest rode his bike directly through the picket line.


The protesters told three neighbor boys that "Jane kills babies," forcing their parents to explain the politics of abortion.

Bovard said she never could have continued her work without the support of friends and family.

Her work with abortion rights may have kept her husband from receiving promotions at NDSU, she said, but he has never been bitter about it.

One night in the mid-1990s, she was awakened from a deep sleep by pounding on the door. Concerned something had happened to one of her children, Bovard scrambled from bed. Her husband warned her not to open the door.

Peeking out the window, Bovard recognized the man outside as an anti-abortion protester. Behind her, she heard her husband loading a rifle.

"That's when I realized how concerned my family was and how much it really was affecting them," she said.

More than protests

But the scariest moments happened away from home.

In summer 1991, the Lambs of Christ, a nomadic group of anti-abortion activists, flocked to Fargo to close the clinic Bovard ran. They harassed staff and clients. Lambs members held protests and sit-ins and broke into the Fargo Women's Health Organization three times.

"It was pretty scary," she said. "I had no idea what those people would do. When they broke into the clinic, I felt violated, like I had been raped repeatedly."

More than a decade after the protests, Bovard still jumps at loud noises.

A year earlier, she was the victim of an armed robbery. While taking clinic funds to a bank in the Northport shopping mall around 7 p.m., a man held a gun to her back and asked for the money. Bovard, thinking it was one of her sons' friends playing a joke on her, turned around.

The man grabbed the bag of money and ran with Bovard following closely behind.

"Stupid me. I chased him and yelled. It never entered my mind that he could've turned around and shot me," she said.

Nobody was ever charged in the robbery. But Bovard suspects it was connected to her work with the clinic.

As a local voice, Bovard also has received national attention. Controversy in the community has been covered by national television, including "60 Minutes," "20/20" and the "Today" show.

The exposure resulted in piles of mail from across the country.

One letter from North Carolina reads, "I am writing to plead with you to stop the murders of innocent children. I know you are only one of many who kill little babies, but that doesn't make your practice right."

Another envelope contained only a tiny handgun made of plaster-of-Paris. Its barrel was in the shape of a fetus.

But in a file of letters received after the "20/20" segment ran in 1985, the majority of letters offered support and appreciation.

"Thank you for your courage and true understanding of abortion, and the need to have legal clinics like yours," said a writer from Florida. "I got out of high school in 1965. By that time two of my classmates had died from illegal abortions ..."

Letters like that keep Bovard going. Sometimes it's a note or a phone call or a whispered message in a store. Although her supporters have often been quiet, she feels their encouragement.

"I've made a difference in peoples' lives," she said. "I provide a service. People who disapprove of it aren't going to stop me."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erin Hemme Froslie at (701) 241-5534

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